Senate Inaction Jeopardizes Unemployment Benefits
The benefits are part of a larger package of government programs, from highway funding to loans for small businesses, set to expire Sunday because senators couldn't agree on how to pay to keep them going.
The House passed a bill Thursday extending the programs for one month while lawmakers consider how to address the issues long-term. Senate Democrats repeatedly tried to follow suit Thursday night and Friday morning, but they couldn't overcome the objections of a single lawmaker, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, that the $10 billion bill would add to the budget deficit.
The bill would extend unemployment payments to laid-off workers and provide them with subsidies to help pay health premiums through the COBRA program. It would extend funding for highway projects and spare doctors from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments. It would extend a small business loan program, the National Flood Insurance Program and the copyright license used by satellite television providers.
Senators said more than a million rural television viewers would not be able to watch local stations on their satellite systems without an extension.
The dispute leaves the programs in limbo as the Senate struggles to overcome partisan bickering over a budget deficit projected to hit a record $1.56 trillion this year. Democrats are eager to address unemployment, with the jobless rate just under 10 percent and congressional elections looming in November. Some Republicans, however, are not eager to accommodate.
At issue are the several tiers of unemployment insurance available to workers whose initial 26 weeks of benefits have expired. The federal government funds several types of extensions for people who have been jobless for longer than that.
The cutoff wouldn't affect most people already receiving extended benefits, said Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. Instead, people seeking to obtain benefit extensions would not be able to obtain them. It's also an administrative nightmare for state labor departments.
About 1.1 million people could lose benefits in the unlikely event the impasse lasts through March.
With most senators already home for the weekend, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tried Friday morning to have the bill passed on a voice vote, which can be blocked by the objection of a single senator. Bunning objected, as he has repeatedly since Thursday.
"Everybody in this chamber wants to extend unemployment benefits, COBRA health care benefits," Bunning said Friday. But, he added, "If we can't find $10 billion somewhere for a bill that everybody in this body supports, we will never pay for anything."
Durbin said the nation's economic problems justify borrowing to pay for the programs. He noted that Congress, with Republican support, has extended the benefits in the past without offsetting the costs.
"I believe it is unthinkable, unforgivable that we would cut off unemployment insurance payments to these people," Durbin said. Addressing Bunning, he said, "Find a way to express your political views that's not at the expense of these people."
The Senate does not have any roll-call votes scheduled before Tuesday, though Democratic leaders said they would continue trying to persuade Bunning to lift his objection, allowing the bill to pass without a recorded vote. To avoid an interruption in benefits, senators would have to act quickly when they return, a task made difficult by Senate rules that let a single senator slow the process. Bunning vowed to fight the extensions as long as they add to the deficit, though he acknowledged they likely will pass eventually.